Reviewed: Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius

The author of A Beautiful Mind focuses on the men and women who shaped contemporary economic thought.


Photo: Natalie Castellino

GRAND PURSUIT: The Story of Economic Genius
(Simon & Schuster)
Sylvia Nasar

Nasar’s last book, A Beautiful Mind, demonstrated her deftness in portraying one great thinker (troubled math genius John Nash). This new title applies the same strengths to a broader subject—the history of contemporary economic thought—by focusing on the men and women who shaped it, from Victorian England through the end of the 20th century.

The result must rank among the most readable efforts at a history of the field. Nasar’s cast of characters is a mix of those who’ve become brand names, such as Hayek and Friedman; those whose names are found less commonly in economic textbooks (Charles Dickens); and those like Beatrice Webb (née Potter) previously underappreciated by the lay reader. Eighth daughter of a railway tycoon, Webb had the run of her father’s library and enjoyed the company of his influential friends. She was thus exposed to ideas few Victorian women were. In 1886, she published a letter in a London paper arguing that East End unemployment was due to distortions in the labour market, not a national depression. From this developed her vision of what would become the modern welfare state—a vision on which she later sold a young Tory politician named Winston Churchill.